a person holding a phone

How in the world does making YouTube cat videos easier to stream from your mobile phone impact the safety of a large airplane with cutting edge tech? Well, it turns out it can potentially, quite a bit.

US wireless network companies including AT&T and Verizon planned to turn on a new band of 5G networks across the United States this week, and they mostly did.

But a joint warning from the world’s two largest airplane manufacturers — who rarely ever get along — gave pause to the rest, and now the White House is intervening.

Why? It’s all about a certain system installed on some of the world’s most frequently used planes, and how the new towers could send the wrong signals, and cause real danger.

Simple Explanation: Airline 5G Drama

Imagine you have one of the super old iPhones, like the iPhone 1. It’s a great phone, still works perfectly for apps designed when it was made and makes calls and all that using networks designed at the time.

Obviously, 4G or 5G wasn’t around when it came out.

So imagine one day you hear that they just installed 5G in your area, and you’re on your phone when you start hearing calls from another person, or your phone’s GPS starts telling you you’re in New Jersey, rather than New York City.

In short, that’s what’s happening with a select group of planes. No, not all planes are as impacted by this 5G ‘Band C’ switch on, but some key passenger planes like the Boeing 777 and Boeing 747-8i definitely are. Others may still take added caution.

These planes use navigation technology (their radio altimeter) which uses similar bands or frequencies to these new 5G towers, and there’s fear that all the conflicting bands and signals could make the planes think they’re in another place.

a person holding a phone

This is something particularly worrying during low (or no) visibility landings which are almost always carried out by autopilot software, rather than pilots. Sorry, if you didn’t know that — but it’s true.

The computers can see what pilots can’t, and therefore can deliver a greater degree of certainty that the plane finds its way safely to the runway’s center line. Until there is certainty that these new 5G towers won’t mess up the radio altimeter system on the impacted aircraft, caution is the word.

So, no. It’s really got nothing to do with whether you sneakily turn your phone on to text as the plane is on final approach, or whether you keep it on during take off. The airline 5G drama is much more about systems that are out of your control, than what you do with your personal devices on board.

Is It All 5G Towers?

5G towers are only really a worry to Boeing, Airbus and airlines in places near airports, and not just all over the place in general. This fast new ‘Band C’ system of 5G requires further investigation to see if it messes with the radio altimeter on the 777 during take off and landing.

So, if you live in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from a major airport, don’t worry — your new 5G should stay on and those cat videos should look crystal. It’s more about people who live in close proximity to a major airport, where the potential for any crossed signals could impact a critical phase of flight.

Many countries in Europe and the rest of the world have made 5G work near airports, and US telecom companies have voiced displeasure with the US FAA, the US governing body for aviation for how they haven’t solved this yet.

Why Flights Are Being Cancelled

These worries are why airlines including ANA, British Airways, Emirates, Air India, Japan Airlines and others have indefinitely cancelled flights to many US airports.

Until an agreement is reached to either “ring-fence” areas around airports where 5G towers won’t be switched on, or more fixes are created for the airline systems that rely on these crucial signals to control and guide the plane, there may be a stalemate.

In the worst case, it could be a while before most Boeing 777’s, which by the way, both United and American also rely heavily, will be operated near some airports. Lufthansa also swapped out its newer 747-8i aircraft for older 747’s today, which don’t seem to use the same potentially troublesome system.

In a year of freak airline changes, cancellations and disruptions, this may prove to be among the largest for international travel to and from the US.

Since most domestic flights rely on slightly newer, smaller aircraft that don’t use the same potentially impacted systems, there shouldn’t be as much disruption from 5G for domestic travel, even if added precautions are taken.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I fly the Embraer 145 and starting today we will have a slew of new procedures to deal with including limiting takeoff weight due to an increased likelihood of having to abort take off due to the possibility we get erroneous warning chimes due to conflicting Radar Altimeter info. 777 may rely on it more but all aircraft will be effected. Rolling out the 5G service with frequencies so close was so stupid and the fact no one did anything about it is even dumber. Shame on the FAA/FCC and the wireless operators.

  2. You said “could make the planes think they’re in another place.”
    In fact the radio altimeter simply acts as a downward looking height above ground measure.
    This is not necessary for an instrument landing but provides an additional check, and for some aircraft is used to assist with engine thrust reduction timing and flare in the last few seconds over the runway threshold.

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